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The research area of the Jebel Qurma Archaeological Landscape Project is situated on the edge of the Black Desert, about 30 kilometres east of the modern town of Azraq in northeastern Jordan, close to the border of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The research area comprises 336 square kilometres – 21 kilometres from east to west by 16 kilometres from north to south.
Map of Jordan, with the location of the research area
On the western side it is bordered by the large Wadi Rajjil, on the eastern side by Wadi al-Qataffi. Situated between these large wadis, over an area of about 20 by 6 kilometres, there is a range of hills entirely covered with basalt, of which Jebel Qurma is the most prominent. To the south of the basalt range is the so-called Qurma Gap, a wide natural east-west corridor through the basalt barrier. Still further to the south-west there is the flat, shallow depression of the Wadi Sirhan – a major caravan track and communication route between the Levant and the Arabian hinterland.
Satellite image of the research area (Source: Google Earth)
When approaching Jebel Qurma from the south, the basalt range rises up impressively from the gently undulating, flint-strewn plain in front of it. Once on top of the range, a landscape of gently rolling basalt-covered hills and plateaus unfolds. The basalt boulders are the result of the weathering of large solidified lava flows from volcanic eruptions that occurred in the area.
The basalt range of Jebel Qurma
The basalt range of Jebel Qurma
Small wadis dissect this upland, sometimes running down towards the plains below but in other cases debouching into small natural basins within the basalt. In wetter seasons, water may collect in these basins, which may attract animals and encourage the growth of plants. In summer, however, these basins dry out completely, leaving behind a mud flat (or Qa' in Arabic).
The vast and barren mud flat: Qa' al-Tayirat
Although most of the basalt range consists of more or less continuous rolling hillocks, in the eastern part of the research area they break up into individual hills with steep slopes and a flat, basalt-capped top. When standing on top of the basalt range, one can look out over the large flint strewn plains below, through which large wadis run, often accompanied by green bushes even in summer. Several large mud flats are situated in these flint plains as well, such as the large Qa' al-Tayirat, where British (colonial) aircrafts used to refuel in the early 20th century on their airmail route between Cairo and Baghdad.
A wadi in the midst of the basalt
The landscape around Jebel Qurma is challenging even nowadays. The basalt range is vast and the basalt boulders ensure that crossing it is an arduous enterprise. Temperatures in summer can easily rise up to 45
°C and sand storms are common. In winter it can be very cold (temperatures may even drop below zero occasionally) and windy. Rain fall in the region is minimal. Although the area may seem inhospitable, the very rich archaeological remains of the Jebel Qurma landscape suggest otherwise.
The Hazimah plain in front of the basalt range, covered in dust
Where do those masses of basalt in the Jebel Qurma region come from? The area is part of a tremendously large volcanic field, the Harrat As-Sham. This volcanic field extends from Syria through Jordan into Saudi Arabia. It comprises a series of lava flows, numerous small cone-shaped volcanoes, extensional faults and large fissure eruptions that led to the forming of NW-SE or E-W oriented ridges. The weathering of this volcanic rock has formed the extensive basalt boulder fields which we see today. The lava flows are dated between 0.5 and 40 million years ago. Most eruptions took place in two periods: between 5 and 8 million years ago and between 8 and 14 million years ago. Read more? See: Julia Shaw et al. in Journal of Petrology 44 (2003), pp. 1657-1679.
A magnificent view of the extinct volcanoes and lava flows in the Harrat As-Sham (in Saudi Arabia). Photo:
Illustration: International Union of Speleology (IUS)